Parliament on d.v. : turns out its not so easy to ask the right questions…

There was an important debate in Parliament today. The government was put on the spot about the scandalous cross examination of victims of rape by the perpetrators of such abuse. It is a shame that the video footage of the house shows so many MPs making a break for the cafe just as it started.

That this issue is being tackled (or is about to be tackled) is a good thing. It is unfortunate that it has taken so long for people to wake up to it. But I have to say that the framing and depth of the debate about this really important issue leaves something to be desired. And it does not give me great confidence that the solution will necessarily resolve the real issue.

There is some real flabbiness of definition here : There is (still) no delineation between complainant and victim, accused and perpetrator, alleged abuser / rapist and actual abuser / rapist. This should not be too hard to grasp. The presumption of innocence should not be a novel concept for our elected representatives to grasp.

Many, maybe most, of the (mainly) men accused of domestic abuse are responsible for some level of bad behaviour. Some will be guilty as charged by their ex. In other cases there is a much exaggerated grain of truth at the heart of a schedule of allegations. And some, we cannot say how many, will be innocent.

But in this really important debate about how we do justice in the family courts, this debate that has had the attention of Parliament as it rightly should – we have forgotten those victims. The victims of false or grossly exaggerated charges made wilfully or through confabulation. Maybe it’s easier to see things from only one perspective, but this isn’t about what’s easier. How can we talk about justice if we can only talk about justice for one party?

And so, the debate trundles on about why we ALLOW men to cross examine their VICTIMS. We shouldn’t allow such cross examination because we have to protect those complainants who ARE victims. But the corollary is : nor should we COMPEL victims of false allegations into having to cobble together their own cross examination, having to face a person determined to see them destroyed, having to do so without the legal aid that their accuser is entitled to. Because some of those “perpetrators” will be just that – victims who are struggling to fight off unjust allegations in order to preserve or establish a relationship with their child. Not all of them, some of them will be nasty, nasty pieces of work who (we will all agree with the benefit of hindsight after a thorough trial) did not deserve representation. But we will at least know that when the trial is over the decision is both fair and robust. And as good an approximation to “truth” as we can achieve.

I think we need to have this conversation – about the men who might not be abusers – before we rush headlong into solving this problem with the sticking plaster of appointing counsel to cross examine but not to conduct a trial or to advise an accused parent.

Not just for the sake of the innocent accused, but also for the sake of the genuine complainant. Because a family court is not like a criminal court. And a family case is not like a criminal case. Yes, it offers a whole arena in and through which a controlling man may continue to attempt to exert control. And yes, our haphazard system may inadvertently facilitate that in some cases. But there are other distinctions too.

Firstly, in the family court the parties are just that – parties. The complalnant is more than just a witness. They are a participant in the entire trial process. And as such the need for protection goes far broader than mere cross examination. The flip side is that the need for an accused to be protected against accusations that he has attempted to manipulate the trial process to exert continuing control over his victim runs throughout the litigation / trial process. An accused litigant in person can be very vulnerable indeed.

And secondly, that the parties do (usually) have a child together. This means that, however uncomfortable it may be, in all but the most exceptional of cases there will have to remain some connection between the parties for a long time – even if it is entirely indirectly through third parties.

And thirdly, because the family court can make very draconian orders – it can suspend or even terminate a relationship between child and parent – based only on evidence to the civil standard of proof. In brutal terms it is far easier for a person accused in the family court of some awful crime to be found to have perpetrated that act than in a criminal court. Again, the accused is vulnerable. And the consequences are different, but are potentially every bit as grave and lifelong as in the criminal court.

Finally, it is worth reflecting on the illuminating heading of the debate in Hansard : Domestic Violence Victims: Cross-Examination. It is broadly drawn. It is not just about rape victims any more. When ministers are reconsidering this issue and formulating proposals they need to take some real care to distinguish between the position in rape cases (specifically provided for in criminal courts) and the position in the spectrum of other cases of domestic abuse (again there are provisions in criminal courts but they only apply where the court considers that the quality of witness evidence is likely to be diminished by direct questioning). Any proposals need to distinguish between cross examination and broader participation in the trial process. They need to distinguish between : cross examination about alleged abuse (to prove or disprove it), cross examination about other matters in a case which involves (or has involved) allegations of abuse, and cross examination in a case which is nothing to do with domestic abuse but where, incidentally there is a background of domestic abuse between the parties or between a party and a witness (for example financial or civil matters between ex partners). The answers called for in each scenario might be rather different. I’m not sure the debate so far has teased any of that out.

It is really encouraging to see Parliament taking an interest in these important issues. But it is profoundly depressing to see the massive blind spot that our Parliamentarians seem to have to one whole side of the discussion – and one whole half of their constituents: the accused, who we insist on calling perpetrators as if we have entirely forgotten about the purpose of the trial in the first place – to establish guilt. Not once in the debate did anyone use the proper terms complainant and accused. Not once did anyone avert to the possibility that an allegation might not be true. It is this one eyed perspective on family courts that got us into this post-LASPO mess in the first place.

And it is profoundly depressing to see it now enter into the Hansard records as fact that “a quarter of domestic violence victims face cross-examination by their abusers.” And not just because of the use of those terms victim and abusers :

Women’s Aid have done valuable work on this topic, and it is largely thanks to their massive campaign that people seem to be sitting up and listening. They deserve credit for it, although I do not always agree with their methods or adopt unquestioningly all of their bold assertions. But the 25% statistic used by Oliver Heald does not come from court statistics, not from any proper research and it is unverified. It comes from a Women’s Aid survey of their own service users, which they have yet to answer questions about (see my previous posts about that here) [update 11 Jan 17 – they have now answered, see here]. The danger in such concerning but basically anecdotal and subjective evidence is that it may not be reliable or may become distorted by the process of stripping out important context. A striking example of this is the account given by an MP in the course of debate today that a “convicted murderer…sued for custody of their child from the prison where he was serving a life sentence for murder”. It seems highly unlikely that a person serving a life sentence for murder would be pursuing an application for a child to live with him. Instead it is far more likely that he was asking questions in the context of pursuing contact or was responding to an application made by extended family wishing to care for the child in light of the mother’s murder. Although it will have undoubtedly been very difficult for the witness, whose sister had been murdered by her questioner, it is of course not an example of a perpetrator cross examining his victim at all. We don’t know the details, and it must be right to expect the court dealing with such an application to control the court process very carefully – but it is difficult to draw conclusions from such snippets – for me this is a powerful illustration of the danger of anecdote.

That the minister for courts and justice Oliver Heald is happy to simply adopt the Women’s Aid guesstimate as fact is an indication of the real depth of consideration here. The minister needs to ensure that the government’s response is to the problem not to the publicity campaign. It all makes me concerned that we will be presented with a quick fix that in fact fixes very little. Let us suppose that a quarter of all victims of domestic abuse are cross examined by their perp (this would be a significant number as it is not limited to rape or serious physical abuse – and thus if we want to ban ALL of it a significant fix would be required). It would be unsurprising if a quarter of all those accused of domestic abuse would also express concern at their vulnerability in having to try and defend themselves against false allegations without help and against a state funded lawyer if asked to complete a survey on the topic. Who is to say which is the greater injustice when we have no proper research on either proposition,  and when our system depends upon us holding in mind the possibility of two alternate versions of reality until after the evidence has been heard?

In saying all of this I don’t minimise the legitimate concerns raised by campaigners and MPs about what is going wrong. But it isn’t the whole story and it isn’t the whole problem. And a mere BAN on cross examination by men who – in the main – aren’t terribly keen on enforced DIY cross examination in the first place is not the whole fix either.

Hair Strand Testing – some interesting information

Photo : lab stuff courtesy of iTc on Flickr - thanks!

Hair strand testing of parents (and other family members) is relatively common in family court cases, especially care proceedings. Most judges, and social work and legal professionals working in this field are therefore used to reading the now lengthy reports that are produced by drug testing companies, setting out and analysing the results. Over the years these reports have become increasingly lengthy due to the increasing amount of standard explanatory “blurb” that needs to accompany the bare result to assist with interpretation and in understanding the proper limits on the testing science. There is an evaluative element to hair strand testing, particularly in cases of suspected excessive alcohol use, and it is important to be aware on what the science is and is not capable of telling us and how probative an apparently positive result really is.

In a recent case Lextox reported as follows (the Family Court has given permission for this extract to be published in anonymised form).

Q : The donor of these results has afro-caribbean hair. Is the growth rate of this type [of] hair slower than other types of hair? Would slow growth of this particular type of hair affect the time it would take to show a negative result or have any other impact on the tests results?

When assigning time periods, Lextox use an average growth rate of 1 cm per month as per the guidance from the Society of Hair Testing (SoHT). However it is an average growth rate meaning that in some people hair can grow at faster or slower rates (With a distribution generally between 0.6cm – 1.4cm per month). In addition, the time periods calculated assume that the hair was cut as close to the scalp and as straight to the scalp as possible. Due to the very curly nature of Afro Caribbean hair, this can make cutting the sample close to the scalp difficult. Therefore the time periods are quoted as approximate and should not be over-interpreted.

It is my understanding that Afro Caribbean hair grows at a slower rate than Caucasian hair. A 1 cm section of Afro Caribbean hair may therefore cover longer than the assigned 1 month time period. If [the subject’s] hair has a slower than average hair growth rate then the levels detected would be unaffected however the time covered by the hair analysed would be longer.

It is possible for a donor to provide a positive hair test result for approximately 3-4 months following cessation. This is because with Caucasians approximately 85% of scalp hair is growing at any one time, with the remaining approximate 15% in the resting (non-growing) phase. When an individual has regularly used a drug for example cannabis, stops and continues to abstain from using the drug it usually takes approximately 3-4 months for a person to return a “Not Detected” result. This is because the resting phase of the hair usually last [sic] 3-4 months. As the resting phase consists of only approximately 15% of the hair the levels detected are expected to be at “low levels”. A large decrease would be expected after the first month once an individual stops using cannabis followed by smaller decreases until a “Not Detected” is obtained after 3-4 months.

It is also my understanding that Afro Caribbean hair can have a higher percentage of hair in the resting (non-growing) phases. If this was the case, although it may not take longer to see a not detected result, the decrease in levels may not be as large as seen with Caucasians.

The usual blurb that this firm uses is as follows (I’ve not included all of it, just the bits that seem relevant to this issue):

Normal hair growth is a cycle composed of three stages, active growing (Anagen phase), transition (catagen phase) and a resting stage (telogen phase). There are significant differences in the relative proportions of actively growing hair and resting hair between different areas on the body. Scalp hair has been selected as a test specimen as it grows at a reasonably constant rate, ranging from between approximately 0.6-1.4cm per month with a population average of 1cm per month, and approximately 85% is actively growing (Pragst & Balikova, 2006) (Harkey, 1993).

…the time periods are approximate and calculated with the following assumptions :

  • The donor has a growth rate of 1cm per month
  • That the hair sample was cut as close to the scalp as possible
  • That the hair sample was cut straight with the scalp

A variation in any factors detailed above will affect the approximate time period calculated. …it can take approximately 2 weeks for hair to have sufficiently grown above the scalp to be available for inclusion within a cut hair sample…

When an individual stops taking a drug, it is still possible for low levels of drugs to be detected in a hair sample. This is due to the fact that at any one time approximately 15% of the hair is not actively growing. This hair would contain drugs that would have entered the hair during the period of drug use (Tsanaclis, 2007).

I asked for the extracted information above to be published because it seemed to me to be that although we all know (and are told in the blurb) that there are many caveats, assumptions and limitations to the interpreted results we receive, it is very easy to forget about the need to consider how the information contained in the report matches or jars with the other evidence in the case, before drawing conclusions. The extract highlights the fact that for a parent of Afro Caribbean extraction, there is a greater risk that the assumptions relied upon could lead to the court concluding that the subject has been untruthful about the date of cessation of drug use in circumstances where that was not warranted. There is of course a risk of this in all cases, because all hair growth rate assumptions are based upon an average, but the risk is by definition greater for those who are part of a subset of the population whose hair tends to grow more slowly, is more difficult to cut and test, and which has a tendency to have a higher proportion of hairs in the resting phase. It’s just a risk, but it is not one that is likely to have been actively considered in the absence of any warning in the blurb materials.

I asked Lextox about this extract and whether or not they were aware of any research papers specifically covering the differences between Caucasian and Afro Caribbean hair, and whether they were considering expanding or altering their general blurb to highlight the differences in hair behaviour and characteristics between different ethnicities. They have sent me this response, from which it appears that they consider their general blurb to be sufficient. They did not point me in the direction of any research studies, indeed they did not answer that particular question.

The use of hair testing in family courts is a well-established science in use across the UK in thousands of family law and child care cases annually. Lextox’s expertise lies in the detection of drugs, metabolites and alcohol markers in hair using highly specific and sensitive instrumentation accredited by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS). Lextox experts are also members of the Society of Hair Testing (SoHT), an independent international body which provides guidance on appropriate analysis techniques for the detection of drugs, metabolites and alcohol markers in hair. By complying with the SoHT consensus, Lextox therefore provides hair analysis within internationally agreed recommendations.

Among those operating within these guidelines, it is well known that there are a number of assumptions when it comes to hair testing, particularly regarding the time period covered by the hair analysed. It is not possible to determine the exact growth rate of hair on a case by case basis for each individual donor. Therefore, a common assumption regarding hair growth rates is required for use in all cases in order to apply an approximate time period to the specific hair section analysed – this being that scalp hair grows at a reasonably constant rate, ranging from between approximately 0.6 – 1.4 cm per month, with a population average of 1cm per month.  

As such, when assigning time periods to a sample, Lextox uses an average growth rate of 1cm per month as per the guidance of the SoHT to calculate all time periods reported. The SoHT does not recommend that hair types from alternative ethnic backgrounds are treated any differently, although it is also documented generally that scalp hair from donors of Afro-Caribbean descent may grow more slowly, sometimes as slow as 0.5 cm per month. In our opinion this does not differ sufficiently enough from the extreme ranges of Caucasian hair growth rate to have any significant effect on the testing procedures involved, and as such Lextox applies the guidance from the SoHT to calculate all time periods reported. This practice is standard within the industry.

With regards to the percentage of hair in the resting phase, again this cannot be determined on an individual basis, and can only ever be an assumption. As such, Lextox uses the percentages of growing and non-growing hair derived from scientifically published data to help in the interpretation of the analysis results.

In summary, Lextox assesses each hair sample submitted on an individual, case by case basis. Any hair sample that is deemed too curly to section into the requested sections, whether of Afro Caribbean descent or not, will not otherwise be sectioned and this information will be relayed back to the client with a number of options on how best to proceed with that particular sample. In such a case, the assessment is made purely in consideration of the physical nature of the sample submitted, as sometimes the hair is manageable by our suitably trained laboratory technicians to handle and accurately align, measure and section.  

In all cases if a client has specific questions on the analysis results, including those regarding growth rates and the growth cycle of hair, Lextox also considers these on a case by case basis and in doing so responds to all client and court related enquiries free of charge.

This statement (which I’ve quoted in full) refers to the Society of Hair Testing, of which Lextox are said to be members. I’ve no reason to doubt that, but unfortunately the SoHT website does not publish its members, which is surprising. And nor is there anything on their website which helps to illuminate matters. There is no mention of ethnicity or of different hair types in any of the material I can find on that site.

The “consensus” document referred to is on the site, and dates from 2004. It includes the simple line In general, head hair is estimated to grow at approximately 1.0 cm per month.” But otherwise nothing much of relevance to this issue. Read in context it appears this was originally agreed by the members of the society as long ago as 1997.

There is a 2011 “statement” which appears to be good practice guidelines. It includes this passage :

It is accepted that head hair grows at an average rate of 1 cm each month [12] and a sample cut from the posterior Vertex region of the head, close to the scalp is preferred as this region of the scalp is associated with least Variation in growth rates. The amount of hair required for analysis is a “lock of hair” or a pencil thickness of hair. It is important to collect sufficient hair in order to carry out routine tests and to allow for a repeat analysis or confirmation test by a second laboratory.

Concerns are often raised in relation to leaving a visible “bald patch” of particular concern with small children or individuals with baldness or thinning hair. In these cases, collection of several smaller hair samples from multiple Sites, focusing where possible around the posterior Vertex region is acceptable.

Head hair is the preferred sample, however, if head hair is not available alternative collection sites should be considered including pubic, underarm and beard hair. Collection of intimate samples requires consideration for the privacy of the donor while ensuring that the integrity of the collection process is not compromised. Growth rates and dormancy characteristics of hair from these alternate sites, differs from head hair.

The reference [12] is to a 1993 paper : M.R. Harkey, Anatomy and physiology of hair, Forensic Sci. Int. 63 (1993) 9-18, (a time when hair strand testing was emergent, as far as I understand it – indeed the SoHT was founded in 1995).

None of the references to research papers that I can find on the SoHT OR appended to the standard blurb in Lextox reports appear superficially (i.e. based on their title) to relate to the issue of different characteristics of hair taken from particular ethnic groups.

I do not presently have the capacity to track down, pay for and read all of those references, or indeed to search for those not listed – so I may be wrong about this – but it is not entirely clear that there is very much good research about this issue at all, and I wonder (it is no more than that at present) whether when it is said that “it is also documented generally that scalp hair from donors of Afro-Caribbean descent may grow more slowly, sometimes as slow as 0.5 cm per month”, this may mean that this is anecdotally a known issue, but nobody has yet bothered to do any robust research on it.

When I have a moment I will send a copy of this blog post to the SoHT and ask them if there is anything relevant, and will update if and when any response is received.

If anybody has had cause to explore this issue or read the relevant papers in one of their cases I would be grateful for any further light that you can shed on this. I doubt in reality that I will have time to do much follow up any time soon given other commitments.


Feature Photo : lab stuff courtesy of iTc on Flickr – thanks!

Hear the angsty screams of the family lawyers…

i sort of feel obligated to vent on behalf of the family law community about The Archers – after all, the criminal bar have had their turn and have pointed out that it is now ours (see Matthew Scott in the Telegraph here and another piece here in the Guardian). Not that it stopped us pitching in whilst their field of work was chopped up and stuck back together to form some Frankenstein version of criminal process. But now we’re back in the Family Court and it’s not got any better…I’ve been masochistically listening to the podcasts this week, trying to find the time and the will to draw together this post.

So. Here goes. We’ll all feel better once I’ve got this out of our system….

The criminal trial finished last week. Handily, this has dovetailed with a completely free week in the family court where (also handily – or entirely inappropriately depending on whether you have two brain cells to rub together) the same judge is also knocking about with nowt in his list and has thought he might have a bash at the family matter and is sitting in the handily empty court room that is available this week. Another happy coincidence is the availability of the social worker to come and give evidence, who evidently didn’t have a dangerous caseload or an EPO or a risk averse manager breathing down her neck and so could pop to court at short notice to give the evidence that will clinche victory for the righteous Helen. Or maybe the judge in the family court thought it was a good idea to block out a whole week of family court time and block up counsel’s diary in the certain knowledge that the criminal trial would finish exactly on time and it would all seague seamlessly from one forum to the next with not so much as a broken video link to hold things up. Maybe…

Anyway, happily (everyone is VERY happy in The Archers at the moment, apart from Rob who is very not happy), as the same judge is dealing with it the need to obtain transcripts of the evidence for the benefit of the family court is completely done away with. Because it’s really absolutely fine for the criminal judge to just rely on his memory of the evidence heard in a different court for an entirely different purpose, where the father was not even represented (he was a witness) and where the witnesses and the questions were directed to entirely different things. And probably things like statements of evidence and schedules of allegations are an unecessary distraction since #webelieve Helen already.

Also fortunate is the fact that the social worker was able to give direct evidence of the father’s abusive behaviour sufficiently cogent for the judge to find the allegations proved on the basis of her evidence. Yay! I’m really very impressed with this social worker. Not only has she been entirely invisible up until now, but she has also apparently been hiding behind the arras the whole time, and witnessed these things happening. Which is handy, and avoids the court actually hearing direct evidence from the parties about these things, which would be very tiresome for the audience who already #webelieve Helen, who is righteous and should regain custardy of the children.

To be fair, we did hear a bit of evidence from Helen earlier in the week, just to give the script writers an opportunity to show Rob Titchener’s barrister having to pursue an excruciatingly crap line of cross examination that attempted to imply it was neglect for a mother to leave her child with his grandparents whilst she pops for a haircut…I mean, this is the stuff of which middle class thresholds are made isn’t it? Not his best point. Or possibly it was…

Fortunately everyone seemed to forget to ask any questions about anything actually important or helpful, like ooh, you know rape and hitting – because that would have been boring. And *yawn* we’ve heard that before. And like, a not guilty verdict on an attempted murder charge is like basically the same as innocent and is like totes the same as a finding of rape, okay? And this is the family court so we can just ignore the outrageous leading questions that gave rise to the allegation…or the timing of the allegation…Can someone remind me why we’re having this hearing at all? Oh yes, narrative arc. Sorry, forgot myself.

The other really amazing thing, and I guess this is probably down to the amazing modern technology that is so very very real in each of our courts – is that counsel for Mr Titchener, even though he wasn’t at court during the criminal trial, has all the papers already (by magic e-bundle or something – who needs disclosure processes?) and is able to be up to speed and ready to crack on first thing on Monday morning, and ready to drop massive clangers before the first wee break (mixing up the burden and standard of proof? Has anyone checked he made it to call?). But seriously, it’s very impressive of him to be able to conduct a defence of his client without knowing either exactly what the witnesses said last week or which particular bits the judge’s mind. Come to think of it maybe he doesn’t have the papers from the criminal trial – in which case he is even more of an impressive and fearless advocate. Hopefully with adequate BMIF cover in place. But I guess it probably wouldn’t be proportionate to adjourn for petty things like a fair trial so he might as well crack on…After all, WE all know his client is a basket.

So far so realistic…

What about the judgment though? Well, fortunately the judge does not repeat the error of counsel for Mr Titchener, about the burden and standard of proof. For judge Loomis is now in the family court and need not trouble himself with such points of detail…He bases his findings of fact squarely on the evidence of the social worker, who we all thought hadn’t met the mother until AFTER everything happened but presumably had a time machine, he moves straight from findings to welfare with not so much as the blink of an eye, and basically decides the case on the basis that “Rob is an unspeakable sh*t”. I mean, in such circumstances who needs actual reasons for disregarding the evidence of one party in favour of that of another (albeit one with magical time travelling fly on the wall powers)…I’m *pretty* sure the Court of Appeal would agree.

I’m sure that off-mic, in between all the hysterical snuffling and wailing (everyone is VERY happy in the Archers, apart from Rob who is very very unhappy, but also everyone is still a bit tired and emotional in the Archers too), the superlative Anna Tregorran reminded the judge he had forgotten to deal with Rob’s step-parent PR and that he expanded on his reasons for immediately terminating the relationship of a small boy with the person who has been caring for him for many months…

After the very realistic trial, the entirely brilliant Anna Tregorran tells her client that “You’ve won – you’re properly free”. I must have missed something because I’m pretty sure that the judge just ordered a psychological assessment in order to inform future decisions about contact with the baby, and that therefore the family are consigned to at least another four months of proceedings and ooh, about another 17 years of co-parenting. Plenty of opportunity to continue being an utter sh*t.

Also, I imagine that Helen and Rob will be superbly pleased to find out that that psychologist is going to cost them another five grand or so…On top of their already whopping legal fees. I hope that organic jam or whatever it is that they make is a real money spinner.

And by the way Anna, we NEVER tell our clients they win. Nobody wins. Anybody would think you weren’t a REAL family barrister! I bet she isn’t even in the Legal 500…